Black August Resistance poster, by Kevin 'Rashid' Johnson, via Black Opinion, August 26, 2016

Black August and Its Global Importance

by The Bucharest Anti-Racist Collective, Bucharest, Romania, August 24, 2018

 

Why is the US national prison strike important not for just for the Americas but also for global attempts to fight racialized capitalism?

 

This time of year, dubbed Black August, is the time when a prisoner-led movement should be at the forefront of our attention.[1] This is probably the biggest prison strike in US history. Although not always visible, comrades in prison are “boycotting commissaries,” “engaging in hunger strikes which can take days for the state to acknowledge,” and “will be engaging in sit-ins and work strikes which are not always reported to the outside.”[2] Yet, other frames which count as political protest and contestation fight for visibility in the global media.[3] Tropes such as “the corruption of politicians” and “the urban carnival of political protest” work to highlight these politics branded as “resistance to power.” [4]

 

Black August Resistance poster, by Kevin 'Rashid' Johnson, via Black Opinion, August 26, 2016
Black August Resistance poster, by Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson, via Black Opinion, August 26, 2016

 

Let us tell you from the outset that this media framing of “resistance to power” sustains and feeds racialized capitalism. More specifically, two operations are embedded in discursively producing racism and worker exploitation.

First, anger about unjust conditions of living is turned from a critique of capitalism and its institutions, such as prisons, to a critique of elites not being meritocratic enough. What we know is that global racialized capitalism works by extracting value from Black and Brown bodies while creating discursive and material racial formations that sustain such extraction. What we know less about is how these frames are shifting according to new conditions and actors on the global scene.

Racialized formations operate not only in an Anglo-American core but also in highly populated urban sites that are maintained as periphery, but which become models for “civic” or “protesting” behavior. More to the point, since we are living in Bucharest, we pay attention to how former socialist peripheries have become the future of civic-led behavior. In the case of countries that produce emigrant labor forces, such as Romania, racialized capitalism works by dividing its labor between a so-called diasporic, civic, enlightened population and an allegedly corrupt, homegrown, mass labor force.[5] This division is activated by organizing mass demonstrations, where laborers who become orientalized and racialized in a European market are brought back to their countries to denounce parties who maintain some residue of welfare policies, such as the Social Democratic Party (Partidul Social Democrat). Rather than being deployed to denounce working conditions both in their diasporic countries and “at home,” their anger against exploitation is channeled to sustain a more disciplined regime of merit capitalism. But this framing of diasporic vs homegrown workers is not the only one deployed to divide the precarious workforce. On June 9, 2018, at the time of the national queer march on the streets of Bucharest, the SDP organized a demonstration where mostly poor workers from outside the capital marched for stronger redistributive policies. It is true, the SDP has been supported by more poor and racialized rural residents than its opposing parties. Yet, like its rivals for power, it seeks to split workers by drawing the lines between the sexually normative, racialized poor, and globalized and precarious urban queers. Anger should, again and again, be oriented toward your alleged enemies, rather than at dismantling institutions of oppression, such as prisons, worker exploitation, and heteronormative, gender-binary laws.

Second, this operation of dividing workforce has to erase any racial hierarchies that underpin it. It actively appropriates the language, ontologies, and strategies of fighting racialized capitalism in order to claim protest and resistance. This is not a coincidence, as can be observed throughout histories of racial dispossession and settler colonialism, which have long been paired with modes of racial appropriation. For instance, during the Boston Tea Party, white North American colonists fought dressed as “Indians” against the British army. Stealing from the Indigenous opposition to settler colonialists, they dressed up as fighters against land appropriation and opposed both British rule and the abolition of slavery.

In Romania, this happened in August 2018, when over 70,000 people occupied Victoria Square outside the national government building, enacting what is now called “the Diaspora Protest,” also known as “the Muie PSD.” “Diaspora” here references an attempt to bring Romanians working abroad back to Romania to condemn the current government, read as backward, corrupt, and socialist. While numerous migrant Romanians did show up (more Roma and non-Roma Romanians alike leave Romania for more lucrative work than people from any other “European” country), often proudly carrying their new countries’ flags, anger was projected at the PSD for being a bad meritocracy in Romania. Rather than acknowledge the precarity and racism that many Romanians working abroad experience on a daily basis, due to anti-Eastern European and anti-Roma racism in their new Western countries, dissent was projected inwards. For these workers, the West remains salvific, and ignored were the ways that racial capitalism polices and incarcerates immigrant bodies abroad, including those of Romanians (particularly those racialized as Roma and Romanian).

The protest and its surrounding online and offline environment are also referred to as “the Muie PSD.” “Muie” is technically a Roma word meaning “mouth” or “to deceive,” but non-Roma Romanians have been using it for decades as a perversion to mean “fucking in the mouth” or “cocksucker,” often deracinated from its Roma origins. It is no small coincidence that “muie” has become the staple of the new effort to divide the working class. With the call to “fuck the ‘social democrats’ in the mouth” (“muie PSD”), the organizers resurrect old, fascist, heteromasculine tropes. These align with other fascist slogans, such as “death to the red plague” (“moarte ciumei roșii”), which was used to target Communists (many of whom were racialized) during the pre-socialist, fascist period. By transforming protests into a space of recycled fascist tropes, some recoded and some deracinated, “Muie PSD” protestors have transformed the space of protest into a space of racism, sexism, and homophobia all at once. Further, their solution for the corrupt government is incarceration. During the August protest, numerous signs portrayed the leaders of the PSD behind bars, while others held effigies of incarcerated PSD leaders. In this way, the space of protest, framed by the liberal West as liberatory and aimed at taking down corruption, instead creates space aimed at preserving and bolstering the powers of the racialized prison system.

In Roma practices of resistance, “to give muie” was a tactic used to deceive the opponent, to take back the work and value traditionally expropriated by the masters. In the new liberal language of the civic resistance movement, “the muie” is stolen from the Roma to articulate against the party that actively supports weak redistributive policies. Like previous attempts to divide the working class, fascist politics has to draw on a sexualized language of power to create racialized divisions, allowing it to discursively occupy the vocabulary of protest and resistance.

But might one refuse the new tactics of carceral futures, taking back not only work and value but also what was stolen? How might doing so align with Black August tactics and create new abolitionist solidarities?

One site from which to start is the prisoners’ tactics and statements in fighting racialized capitalism. Rather than believing that denouncing the hypocrisy of the elites and organizing civic carnivals will lead to social justice, Kevin Rashid Johnson calls on us to think about the risks that prisoners are facing in challenging racialized capitalism.[6] In arguing that prisoners are modern slaves, he calls on us to see slavery as an institution of the present. He forces us to think deeply about claims that celebrate freedom and free speech as the vocabulary of the modern protester and urges us to look at sites and modes of acting that are erased and kept invisible. Only in having a global understanding of the operations of global capitalism can the work of active solidarity and support gain traction among groups already involved in this fight. Black August could be fomenting new lines of alliance and modes of solidarity, but, as we have tried to argue, operations of racialized capitalism such as “resistance to power” will take their toll on public awareness.

 

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] See “What is Black August?” Black Opinion, August 26, 2016, https://blackopinion.co.za/2016/08/26/what-is-black-august/

[2] See Prison Strike, https://incarceratedworkers.org/news/strike-statement-press-august-22-2018

[3] See more about the co-optation of radical protest movements by right-wing politics in Brazil, Vincent Bevins, “The Brazilian Spring that never arrived,” The Atlantic, June 20, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/06/brazil-protest-june-2013-rousseff-lula-bolsonaro-election-workers-party-temer/563165/ See also the rhetoric about corruption and merit with respect to the 2017 Women’s March to Washington, DC.

[4] For instance, left-leaning sites such as The Guardian and The Jacobin thrive on denouncing the corruption of the elites, the plight of the poor, and glamorizing urban demonstrations of “civic” behavior. See Claudia Ciobanu, “Migrants left for a better life. Now they fight for a better Romania,” The Guardian, August 22, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/22/romania-migrant-diaspora-protest-police-crackdown-corruption and Matei Barbulescu, “Voting With Their Feet”, The Jacobin, August 23, 2018, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/08/romania-psd-corruption-protests-emigration

[5] See the Ciobanu and Barbulescu articles.

[6] Kevin Rashid Johnson, “Prison labor is modern slavery. I’ve been sent to solitary for speaking out,” The Guardian, August 23, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/23/prisoner-speak-out-american-slave-labor-strike

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *